Westlake (Thornwood, N.Y.) senior Jackie O’Connor gained a lot over the last year.
She gained the strength to go back to school on a daily basis, she gained a stronger bond with her teammates and friends — both one in the same, and her amber red hair has grown back to cover her fair, freckled skin.
But what the 17-year-old gained from beating Stage 3C ovarian cancer, was perspective.
“It’s been a lot different than last year,” said O’Connor, who went into remission in early October last year. “All my stuff is coming together.”
O’Connor has been weaning off doctor visits as her health improves. After going once a month for six months, O’Connor now goes every three months for six months and will soon go just once every six months.
O’Connor said it was “weird” on the first day of school this year, especially with it now being her senior year. Now a starter for Westlake’s varsity volleyball team, O’Connor said that playing through chemotherapy treatments and seeing her teammates last year eased the process.
“It gave me something to do instead of just sitting at home doing nothing,” she said. “When I was in the hospital, I always had my volleyball friends there; they were like my sisters. … Two of my best friends today are (recent Westlake grads) Kylie Bellissimo and Christina Rizzo.
“(My teammates) were there for me like every single day; a lot of them came to visit me in the hospital. … I was with them every day, and I wasn’t going to school, so I wasn’t seeing my school friends, I was only seeing them. They literally helped me through everything.”
Rizzo, now a freshman at the University of Delaware, still keeps in touch with O’Connor, despite graduation.
“We were always really close with (Jackie),” Rizzo said, recalling the friendship which started about four years ago. “I felt so bad for her; everyone loved her. It was hard for everyone to watch her go through that.”
Rizzo said she admired her former teammate for her bravery and attitude during chemotherapy.
“If you know her, you probably would never think she had (cancer),” Rizzo said. “She was very open about it and not afraid of it.
“It made you realize that you have to be grateful for everything, and that it can always be worse.”
The troubling times in O’Connor’s life brought the Westlake team closer, making the Wildcats more of a cohesive unit and O’Connor a role model.
“We don’t have any drama, and that’s unusual (for most volleyball teams),” O’Connor said. “I think everything that happened put a lot of things in perspective. … Going from last year and I could barely play, to this year, being on the starting lineup, constantly playing and (having) the younger girls look at me to pick them up, it makes me feel a lot better. I feel so much stronger and better, and it really changed me.”
O’Connor’s coach, Carmen Bates said that many of the younger girls on the team look up to her — beyond the volleyball court.
“Even for myself, it’s changed my whole perspective on the game … I know the kids feel the same way,” Bates said. “How strong she was last year through everything — not missing a practice — through this year, just growing as a leader. … She’s my hero, she’s great.”
Bates, a mother of three boys, said watching the then-junior so through everything last year “amazed” her. The Wildcats coach still keeps in touch with O’Connor’s mother, Carolann.
“Our whole perspective of sports changed last year,” Bates said. “It went to: winning is important, but it’s not everything.”
Westlake, the No. 8 seed in the Section 1 Class C tournament, will host No. 9 Pleasantville on Friday at 4:30 p.m.
Mike Zacchio also writes for the Journal News of Westchester County (N.Y.).